When Antisemitism Happens to Good People

When antisemitism is rooted in ignorance


in Ideas • Illustrated by Kat Heller


One of the most powerful films I’ve seen about anti-Jewish hate during the Second World War isn’t a period piece depicting the ferocious brutality of Nazi death camps or an action flick about partisans fighting German soldiers in forests covered with snow. It’s a picturesque French film called The Two of Us about a Jewish boy who is sent, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, to the countryside to live with the elderly parents of his parents’ French-Catholic friends. The boy is told never to reveal his identity as a Jew in part because the old man with whom he lives turns out to be a virulent antisemite, constantly spewing hate and claiming the Jews are the main problem with both France and the world. He is also a vegetarian who cries when his beloved dog dies. The man and the boy become fast friends and the boy survives the Second World War thanks to the old man’s goodness of heart — and the fact that he never learned that the boy was Jewish.

What’s interesting about this film is that the old man’s antisemitism doesn’t completely define him as a person. He’s a good man with a bad prejudice. Whether he could have overcome this prejudice to knowingly help save a Jewish boy is an open question. But the reality is that — antisemitism aside — he is an animal lover, and though often curmudgeonly, an ultimately warm individual with a soft heart. It would be difficult to villainize the old man, a veteran of the First World War, as an evil person. And yet he spreads the same hate that, in many cases, has led to harm or death for Jews. It’s this difficulty in reconciling the two conflicting aspects of a single personality that makes antisemitism such a complex issue. 

We talk about antisemitism as a scourge — using the language of disease to describe something inhuman that can’t be fully eradicated. Or we talk about antisemitism as evil — using the language of moralism to describe malicious acts meant to harm people. But we have little language for the kind of antisemitism that is rooted in ignorance, naivety, or even goodwill. We don’t know how to talk about antisemitism when it comes from those who just don’t know enough about Jewish culture and history to understand the singularity of antisemitism as a racist phenomenon. We also don’t have a framework in which to point out someone’s antisemitic prejudice without implicitly accusing them of malevolence. But the reality is that many people hold antisemitic beliefs without knowing them. Especially since, for many of them, Jewish people exist more as mythical figures than real people with whom they’ve had any meaningful interaction.

Once, on a trip to Nairobi as part of a group of young American writers organized by Mikhail Iossel and the late Binyavanga Wainaina, I was introduced to a young Christian woman who had heard that I was Jewish and wanted us to meet. She had never seen a Jew before and was exceedingly kind, saying all kinds of things about us — like how smart, successful, and well-organized we all were as a global community. It was supposed to be a compliment, but it sent chills down my spine. Admiration aside, she enumerated a list of the most blatantly obvious and erroneous stereotypes about Jews. And it didn’t really matter that she looked upon these supposed qualities positively. What mattered was that, despite being false, they existed in the mind of someone who’d never before even met a Jew. For her, I was like an exotic specimen of a superhuman species — despite, in reality, being an aspiring writer with little to show for myself beyond a mountain of student loans. 

I didn’t blame her personally. The need for fantasy, whether positive or negative, is part of what it means to be human. And yet, in the global imagination, Jews have often played a unique role. For some, they represent the best of the world. For others, the worst. The reality, of course, is that Jews are human, like everyone else, with good people and bad people, with lying politicians and honest social workers, with highly educated professionals and manual laborers who barely finished high school. We are a people like any other in the sense that our collective is made up of individuals who exist along the entire gamut of social classes. But we are different in the sense that we insist on our Jewish identities regardless of where we live. Being just a little different than others, yet familiar enough to be part of their general culture, we become targets for what others sometimes don’t even realize they think or believe about us.

I remember another time, sitting with my wife’s 96-year-old grandmother in her country home about an hour north of New York City, as two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to proselytize. We explained to them that we were Jewish, and not really the right audience for their prepared speech, and then they got excited and inquired whether they could ask us a question. We said, sure, ask anything. The woman leaned forward slowly and, half-whispering, asked, “Tell me, do you still offer live animal sacrifices?” We laughed and explained that, according to Jewish law, animal sacrifices had been banned since the exile from Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. They smiled and went on to the next house. And I was left with the uneasy feeling that somewhere, out there, people believed that Jews just like me were still sacrificing animals. 

It makes you want to laugh. But it also makes you want to cry. It’s one thing to say that someone is being antisemitic when they’re knowingly targeting you as a Jew — it’s another when they’re trying to compliment you or ask questions they think are innocent, but actually fuel hate, anger, and violence against you and those like you. Good people can be carriers of bad prejudices. They may not hate you, but they still manifest antisemitism in the world.

People who are not Jewish often come across the term antisemitism long before they actually meet someone Jewish. They are taught, in extremely general terms, about the Holocaust and the mass annihilation of millions of Jews in Europe. They hear about Nazis and yellow stars and racist laws and some even hear of pogroms in the Russian Empire. Their impression of antisemitism is that it’s a trait belonging to bad people. Only those who actively pursue harming Jews, individually or en masse, can ever be called antisemites. Regular individuals with no conscious anti-Jewish agenda could never be antisemitic. Right? Well, not exactly. Yet this is the logic people present when someone points out that what they’ve said, or a tweet they’ve shared, has traces of antisemitism. 

This simplistic equation “antisemite = bad person” makes it harder to educate people about less deliberate yet more ubiquitous forms of antisemitism. It accuses people of being something they don’t fully understand. Because, while it uniquely targets Jews, antisemitism connects to a sociocultural tendency that is present in all humanity — our fear of the other. And even more paradoxical is that this fear can be entrenched in those who are themselves perceived as others within their own societies. I was always surprised to encounter antisemitism among individuals from social, ethnic, or racial groups who were themselves targeted for their minority status. Yet, growing up in immigrant neighborhoods that included children from across Asia, India, and Central America; I was surprised to discover that they, too, held of all kinds prejudices, not just against me, but against those who belonged to minority groups that were not their own.

Difference is threatening, but difference is also relative. People seen as different in one context can later see others as different in another. In general, ethno-religious-cultural focus on what they share with those around them. But Jews have always also insisted on their own identity, no matter where they lived, turning difference into a core element of their identity. Romani people can also be considered to share this trait, remaining different no matter where they live, and they too suffered for it under the Nazis and are still targeted today by what is now called antigypsyism. The Jewish brand of difference is singular in that it adapts itself into a myriad of traditions and streams throughout the world — never being able to be identified as one or another entity while maintaining core similarities that run across variations. What Jews across the world share, in a sense, is their insistence on being Jewish in the way they see fit. This insistence on difference within the larger majority culture creates a tension that eventually finds its way into preconceived notions about Jews. The result is a kind of prejudice that brings together racism, religionism, sexism, colorism, and many other terms that are used to describe discrimination or injustice based on one’s culture, ethnicity, religion, or other markers of belonging or identity. 

A majority culture’s misconception of Jews as having one or another trait is perhaps the most common, yet least obvious form of antisemitism — even when these traits are nominally neutral. When placed at the service of social controls, they can lead to Jews being barred from neighborhoods, clubs, or schools, as was done overtly in America at least until the early 1950s (and sometimes covertly to this day), and as was done in the Soviet Union for most of its existence. It also puts subtle pressure on Jews to remove obvious markers of difference from both their bodies and behaviors. Nobody wants to be targeted for being different. And so, at some point, you erase your difference in the unconscious hope that you will be accepted. Because, at the end of the day, while difference is threatening to a majority culture, it is much more of a liability for the individual who is part of a perceived other

The sense of being targeted for an inherited difference — one that is not always as apparent as one’s accent or skin tone — can also bring a people together. This is what happened in the Soviet Union, where Jews were denied any access to their religious heritage, yet preserved a sense of ethnic identity based largely on the social limits and cultural assumptions imposed upon them. It has also happened more recently in the United States, especially after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us,” a spate of attacks on Jews across the United States in 2018-2019, including the Pittsburg and Poway synagogue shootings, and a new wave of attacks on Jews that has recently exploded around New York City. 

The issue is that these more obvious manifestations of antisemitism are only part of the story — as latent antisemitism, which may not be conscious or malevolently motivated, ripples through society at the same time. When certain people begin to actively target and harm a particular group, others begin to justify their actions with prejudices based on ignorance or misconceptions about that group. One way to counter this tendency is to explore the history and culture of the group being targeted. There’s also another way, which doesn’t necessarily mean learning about, or even exposing oneself to, the other. It’s simply remembering that no group can be all bad, and that sweeping generalizations are usually more about the people making them than anyone else.

For nearly 70 years, Jews in the United States largely passed for white. But, like all cases of passing, theirs was partial at best and depended on the visibility of each person’s Jewish markers. Now, as antisemitism continues to become manifest, both Jews and non-Jews have moved to de-white-ify Jewish identity. And as some Jews in America shift from passing for white to facing their status as non-whites, and others embrace the newly-minted identity of Jews of color, the many presumptions and misconceptions about Jews circulating in the subterranean levels of American culture rise to the surface — not only among those who persecute us, but potentially among those who nominally defend Jews as well. People who consider themselves good folk could easily start expressing antisemitic views considered to be positive without even knowing that they are based on hateful tropes. They could be neighbors. They could be coworkers. They could even be friends. And the most important thing is to make them see that being called out for antisemitism doesn’t have to be seen as an insult: it can also be a wake-up call. •


David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. His fiction has appeared in The Woven Tale Press, The Account, and Call me Brackets, his nonfiction in The American Scholar, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Entropy, and his translations in The New Yorker, Conjunctions, and Asymptote. His most recent book is A Short Inquiry into the End of the World, a speculative essay in The Massachusetts Review‘s Working Titles series, and his edited collection of essays by Isaac Bashevis Singer is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.